Costing the earth – a renewed environmental outlook could mean shunning some of the world’s biggest polluters as organisations look to ramp up their green credentials

23 July, 2021

The restrictions on non-essential travel and lockdowns enabled us to witness what happens to our environment when normal life grinds to a halt. This has led to a new phenomenon of ‘Blue Sky Thinking’, in which several cities worldwide are leading the way to ensure that air quality is improved permanently, says business travel management company CWT. But, will it really influence our future travel demand?

According to Global Carbon Project global greenhouse emissions dropped by 7% in 2020 and while the pandemic has delivered blue skies in several regions, a global health crisis is obviously not the solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the long run. Still, it has given us time to reflect on the impact of our activities on our planet – including the way we travel. When skies and borders fully reopen and safe & compliant travel resumes, are we ready to make more sustainable choices?

According to a 2017 study conducted by researchers at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden (LUCSUS) the three personal choices we can make to cut greenhouse gas emissions are: reducing air travel, reducing car travel or reducing meat consumption.

CWT reveals in a blog post that a polled of its Linkedin followers to find out if they are prepared to make changes in their behaviour for the sake of the environment, found almost a third (31%) were ready to cut down on business travel, but interestingly not leisure trips.

It is clear that for a large number of us environmental sustainability has a clear impact on decisions around travel. That was the case before COVID-19 struck and will have intensified viewpoints on the environment during the pandemic.

The pandemic has clearly put sustainability at the top of the agenda for governments and businesses that are incorporating sustainability into their daily operations, resulting in robust targets. It means that travel in the future will have to be more responsible.

Industry has responded with alternative fuels, new forms of power under consideration. Employers and employees may push for train rather than aeroplane on shorter routes, some destinations could actually be shunned due to their environmental footprint.

Feelings have never been stronger on the subject of the environment and this will have an influence on travel behaviours: to what degree though is not known. Just 25 'mega-cities' produce more than half (52%) of the world's urban greenhouse gas emissions, new research from Sun Yat-sen University recorded and 23 of them are in China.

The cities that emit the most greenhouse gases included Handan, Suzhou, Dalian, Beijing and Tianjin in China – but also Moscow, Russia (ranked 7th) and Tokyo, Japan (ranked 17th). New York, USA; Manila, Philippines; Bangkok, Thailand; Dubai, UAE; and Seoul, South Korea also make the top 30 biggest city polluters. Could these become potential blackspots for future travel as organisations ramp up their green credentials?

This may all seem rather severe, but it is clear that Governments will need to increase spending and policy action rapidly to meet their sustainability commitments. Carbon emissions are set to hit an all-time high by 2023 as just 2% of pandemic recovery finance is being spent on clean energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said this week.

In Jun-2021, the IEA released its clean investment report, which found that annual green investment must increase more than sevenfold – from less than USD150 billion in 2020 to more than USD1 trillion by 2030 if the world is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

This is what consumers are demanding, according to digital travel specialist New research containing insights gathered from more than 29,000 travellers across 30 countries, suggests that the pandemic has been the tipping point for travellers to finally commit to their own sustainable journey.

Looking from a UK perspective, 70% of travellers believe people have to act now to save the planet for future generations. The Sustainable Travel Report reveals that UK travellers are more committed than ever to do so in a mindful way, with 43% stating that the pandemic has influenced them to want to travel more sustainably in the future. Further to this, over half (55%) admit that the pandemic has shifted their attitude to make positive changes in their everyday lives, with recycling (52%) and reducing food waste (49%) being the top priorities at home.

The earlier mentioned CWT research on Linkedin suggests people will be more willing to give up business than leisure travel and means that more will need to be done to drive sustainable options. World Bank researchers say investing in eco-tourism and nature conservation could play a pivotal role in turning stuttering economies around. For every dollar governments invested in protected areas and support for nature-based tourism in 2019, the economic rate of return was at least six times the original investment, according to a recently published World Bank report.

The ‘Banking on protected areas – promoting sustainable protected area tourism to benefit local economies’ report focuses on four countries, including Brazil's Abrolhos Marine Park where visitors can go free-diving, Chitwan National Park in Nepal which offers hiking and wildlife trips, and safari destination South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

The rates of return at these nature tourism hotspots ranged from six to 28 times the amounts spent in 2019 on things like roads, trails and visitor centres and wages for park managers and rangers to protect against poachers. Given these economic benefits, researchers say pandemic recovery plans should promote green tourism, which creates local jobs, improves incomes and helps protect biodiversity.

There are lots of promises about environmental sustainable and positive change appears on the cards. But, what will be the cost? A significant investment in saving the planet or its continued degradation.